Substance 42 (2):48-60 (2013)

Joshua Landy
Stanford University
This essay argues that literature is neither an intrinsic good (like oxygen) nor a constructed good (like a teddy-bear) but instead a conditional good, like a blueprint. It has immense potential value, but that potential can be actualized only if readers do a certain kind of work; and readers are likely to do that work only if, as a culture, we retain an understanding of what novels and poems both need from us and can give us. This means we need to be wary of theories that are excessively deflationary (all literature is mere entertainment), cynical (all literature is a vehicle for state ideology), or over-optimistic (all literature makes us more altruistic) and instead embrace a pluralism of effect. Some fictions, like The Wire, invite us to reflect on our own beliefs; some, like Plato’s dialogues, help us fine-tune our mental capacities; some, like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, offer us a choice of genres; some help us feel our feelings; some offer formal models for the shape of a life. Literature can continue to matter in all of these ways—but only as long as we allow it to.
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DOI 10.1353/sub.2013.0026
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